Got Symptoms? See a Doctor

Cancer symptoms did not always signal cancer, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve health outcomes

(RxWiki News) It's easy to dismiss symptoms like irregular moles or unexplained pain. And while they're probably nothing, you should have a doctor check them out.

In a new study, many people who had issues like unexplained bleeding or an unusual growth thought they might have an infection or that their problem was just a sign of old age. Few thought of cancer, and many did not seek medical care, even when their symptoms were what specialists consider to be red flags for cancer.

The authors of this study said people need to be aware of the warning signs of cancer and see a doctor as soon as symptoms appear — even if the symptoms are likely harmless.

Brian D. Lawenda, MD, national director of Integrative Oncology and Cancer Survivorship at 21st Century Oncology in Las Vegas, told dailyRx News that patients should always take symptoms seriously — but those symptoms aren't usually serious.

"Potentially serious symptoms that might be associated with cancer are fairly non-specific and are often brushed off or misinterpreted by patients as something unlikely to be cancer," Dr. Lawenda said. "This can lead to a delay in diagnosis and worse outcomes. Fortunately, for the vast majority of cases in which a serious 'alarm symptom' is noted by patients, the symptom is not related to a cancer diagnosis but something less serious."

Dr. Katriina L. Whitaker, PhD, senior research fellow at University College London, led this study.

These researchers made a survey that asked people about possible recent symptoms, what they thought caused them and whether they went to see their doctors about them. While there were 10 symptoms that were possible signs of cancer, other symptoms not suggestive of cancer were also included. The survey did not mention cancer at any point.

The 1,724 people in the UK who answered the mailed survey were 50 years old or older.

Symptoms they had felt or noticed in the previous three months that could signal cancer included a change in a mole, unexplained pain that did not go away, unexplained bleeding that did not stop or unexplained weight loss.

Symptoms that were not thought to signal cancer included feeling tired or having a sore throat.

Fifty-three percent of those in the study had symptoms that should have been alarming and made them think they could possibly have cancer. Only 2 percent of the respondents mentioned cancer as a possible cause of these symptoms.

Just 59 percent said they had sought treatment for their potentially serious symptoms.

The study participants were more likely to cite age or infection as a cause for their symptoms than they were to blame cancer.

Dr. Whitaker said cancer didn’t seem to be at the top of the patients' minds.

“Even when people thought warning symptoms might be serious, cancer didn't tend to spring to mind," she said in a press release. "This might be because people were frightened and reluctant to mention cancer, thought cancer wouldn't happen to them, or believed other causes were more likely."

This study “highlights the importance of continued public health education and awareness campaigns to prompt patients to discuss any concerning new symptom with their primary care provider as soon as possible," Dr. Lawenda said. "Logistical barriers also need to be improved that facilitate faster, easier and more convenient communication between patients and healthcare providers (ie., home-to-physician office telemedicine, increased appointment availability and access, more physician assistants and nurse practitioners, etc.) so new symptoms can be addressed as quickly as possible."

Most people with symptoms suggestive of cancer don't have cancer, Dr. Whitaker and team noted. Still, "it is clear that opportunities for cancer to be diagnosed earlier are being missed," they wrote.

This study was published Dec. 2 in PLOS ONE.

Cancer Research UK funded this study. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 1, 2014